Political Punk Rock

green_day_-_american_idiot_cover
Green Day ‘American Idiot’ Cover Art

Green Day are a Punk Rock band who have been on the scene since their very first album 1039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours (1991), but their 1994 Dookie album is where they really hit the big time. Having released 12 studio albums, as well as a bunch of live and video albums since 1991, its safe to say they have a lot of influence in our modern world. In 2004 came their first concept album, American Idiot, which exudes themes of politics and social dysfunction. American Idiot follows the story of a character, the ‘Jesus of Suburbia, ‘ who doesn’t want to be just another person believing the lies and useless information fed to them through the media and the Government. Hence these lyrics in the song American Idiot, 

“Don’t wanna be an American idiot.
One nation controlled by the media
Information age of hysteria.
It’s calling out to idiot America.”

What is semiotics?

The word ‘semiotics’ literally means ‘The science of signs.’ Semiotics is a way of getting meaning out of (or putting meaning into) any type of media, through interpretation of signs and symbols within that media. In regards to American Idiot, I will be analysing the colours, framing and graphic of the album cover, as well as the lyrics of the actual song American Idiot.. Through semiotic analysis as described by Stokes (2009, p. 71), I will prove how the album was intended to depict a harsh confusion of politics and social dysfunction and whether or not it reaffirms dominant modern ideologies.

In the following, the denotative and connotative meanings will be discussed in relation to each semiotic element. “The words ‘denotative’ and ‘connotative’ discuss the relationship between the signifier and the signified (Hubbard, n.d.).”

Album Art
Colours:

Denotative: The American Idiot cover art has three simplistic colours: red, black, and white.

Connotative: I’ll start with the most obvious: red. It has been proven that this colour activates your pituitary gland, which increases your heart rate and causes you to breathe more rapidly. In light of this subconscious response, red is aggressive and provocative; always stimulating an intense response (Crane, n.d.). The particular red in the cover art is blood red, which obviously makes us think of blood, death and perhaps struggle or a fight.

Black generally has negative connotations. For example, chaos, evil, the unconscious, death. There is also the Black Flag of Anarchy, which is believed to have come from the pirates of the 1700s. Their flag was then named the ‘Jolly Roger,’ but “the black flag still flies…amongst anarchists and anti-capitalist protesters [today] (Land, 2007).”

“Black is the mood of anger and outrage at all the hideous crimes against humanity perpetrated in the name of allegiance to one state or another. It is anger and outrage at the insult to human intelligence implied in the pretenses, hypocrisies and cheap chicaneries of governments…(Ehrlich, 1996).

Therefore it is obvious that in this political concept album, the colour has been used as a symbol of standing against the government and standing against everything the media is shoving down your throat.

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White generally is a colour of purity. However, in this particular instance while contrasted against the chaotic black and red, it is more likely to stand for life itself. White is generally associated with the beginning and the end, such as in wedding dresses or the ‘white light’ of going to heaven that is heard in many different cultures. In the instance of this album art it seems to symbolize life and perhaps even hope of a better future.

Wassily Kandinsky, a pioneer of abstract modern art, expressed it this way: “White resonates, like a silence that can suddenly be understood (Jordan, 2016).”

Framing and Space:

Denotative: The picture has been framed so as to only be able to see above the elbow of the hand, fisted around the heart-shaped hand-grenade, with the title and band name sharing an equal amount of space as the graphic.

Connotative: The fact that the cover shows only one hand alone may point to one lonely person standing against the world or the world against them. Because you cannot see their facial expression or other body language, it leaves only the pointed gesture of the clenched fist for interpretation for the mood of the album. The fact that the band name and album title share an equal amount of space with the graphic may indicate that they are as important as each other.

Graphics:

Denotative:  The picture shows a clenched fist with a bleeding heart-shaped hand-grenade, in a semi-cartoon sort of style. The title and band name are in a blocky font, the band name all in caps and the album title all in lower-case. There is also spots in the titles, as if it might be old and wearing away.

Connotative: Certain gestures can have quite specific meanings, such as…the clenched fist of anger (Danesi, 2004).” This gesture is something that people often do without conscious thought, meaning that it is then in turn also interpreted subconsciously. “Making a fist refers to the recipient that a blow will follow…(Krampen, 1987).” This may seem an obvious conclusion to come to, however in this album art, perhaps the point is that something is about to happen, someone is about to take a stand; a blow is coming. The fact the the clenched fist has a hand-grenade in his hand just adds to the danger of that blow. However, the interesting thing is that it is shaped like a bleeding heart,  which may indicate that the maker of the fist is torn in what he’s doing, or that his heart is already completely broken and there’s no going back.

Lyrics:

Don’t wanna be an American idiot.
Don’t want a nation under the new mania
And can you hear the sound of hysteria?
The subliminal mind fuck America.

Welcome to a new kind of tension.
All across the alienation.
Where everything isn’t meant to be okay.
Television dreams of tomorrow.
We’re not the ones who’re meant to follow.
For that’s enough to argue.

Well maybe I’m the faggot America.
I’m not a part of a redneck agenda.
Now everybody do the propaganda.
And sing along to the age of paranoia.

Welcome to a new kind of tension.
All across the alienation.
Where everything isn’t meant to be okay.
Television dreams of tomorrow.
We’re not the ones who’re meant to follow.
For that’s enough to argue.

Don’t want to be an American idiot.
One nation controlled by the media.
Information age of hysteria.
It’s calling out to idiot America.

Welcome to a new kind of tension.
All across the alienation.
Where everything isn’t meant to be okay.
Television dreams of tomorrow.
We’re not the ones who’re meant to follow.
For that’s enough to argue.

Denotative: Firstly, the actual name of the song ‘American Idiot,’ is a symbol in of itself. This phrase is also included within the lyrics. There are also key words,such as: hysteria, tension, alienation, propaganda and phrases like: ‘subliminal mind fuck America,’ ‘everything isn’t meant to be okay,’ ‘I’m not apart of a redneck agenda,’ and in particular, ‘one nation controlled by the media,’ which not-so-subtly radiate the political chaos and social malfunction of the scene in the album.

Connotative: As words obviously already have meaning behind them, to describe the connotations of the lyrics I am going to use the online Oxford Dictionary, along with contextual significance.

Hysteria: Exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement.

Tension: A strained political or social state or relationship (2.1).

Alienation: The state or experience of being alienated (ie. Make (someone) feel isolated or estranged (1) or  Make (someone) become unsympathetic or hostile (1.1)).

Propaganda: Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.

Subliminal: (of a stimulus or mental process) below the threshold of sensation or consciousness; perceived by or affecting someone’s mind without their being aware of it.

AgendaThe underlying intentions or motives of a particular person or group

Control: The power to influence or direct people’s behaviour or the course of events

Having a list of the words and their definitions really spells out the meaning of the song. As you can see, a very specific vocabulary has been chose, which all relate to the underlying theme of mindless political control of the nation.

After the semiotic analysis of this album, I believe that it is reaffirming dominant ideology. In this day and age, the media is very controlling, and people will without a doubt believe anything they are fed through the internet, or the news. Everybody thinks they are an expert, because they ‘saw it in an article online,’ or ‘watched it on the news the other night.’ Particularly in light of the recent election in America, it is supremely obvious how the media can directly feed and manipulate the masses.

References:

Crane, C. Using semiotics analysis to impact how consumers think about your brand. Presentation, Online (LinkedIn).

Danesi, M. (2004). Messages, Signs, and Meanings: A Basic Textbook in Semiotics and Communication (Studies in Linguistic and Cultural Anthropology) (1st ed., p. 57). Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press.

Ehrlich, H. (1996). Reinventing anarchy, again (1st ed., p. 1). Edinburgh, Scotland: AK Press.

Hubbard, C. Semiotic Analysis of Rick and Morty (Undergraduate). SAE Qantm.

Jordan, J. (2016). Jackie’s Notebook: 2016 Color of the Year — Alabaster (SW 7008). Stir. Retrieved from https://www.sherwin-williams.com/architects-specifiers-designers/inspiration/stir/sw-art-stir-jackie-2016-coty

Krampen, M. (1987). Classics of semiotics (1st ed., p. 29). New York: Plenum.

Land, C. (2007). Flying the black flag: Revolt, revolution and the social organization of piracy in the `golden age’. Management & Organizational History, 2(2), 169-192. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1744935907078726

Stokes, J. (2003). Semiotics; Ideology. In How to do media and cultural studies [pp. 70-78]. London: SAGE Publications.

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